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Dan Glickman on partisanship

Q and A with Dan Glickman: February 2011

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Dan Glickman

By Garry Boulard

As a former congressman representing the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas from 1976 to 1994, and secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration for six years, beginning in 1995, Dan Glickman knows how Washington works. He is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center after serving as the chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, and before that, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Glickman has always placed a high value on leaders of sometimes vastly differing opinions coming together to find solutions. “It is how our system works at its best,” he says.

For that reason, he was excited about joining the Bipartisan Policy Center, which was founded in 2007 by former Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell with the goal of promoting political consensus in a wide variety of policy areas, including national security, energy, health care and homeland security.

Glickman works on The Democracy Project at the center, an initiative designed to encourage constructive political dialogue, while reducing partisan gridlock at all levels of government.

He thinks the need for that dialogue has never been greater, noting that “today we are seeing hyper-partisanship at all levels—federal, city and state. Our goal with The Democracy Project is to try and look for ways to minimize the impact of excessive partisanship and try and find best practices around the country."

While Glickman says we'll never get rid of partisanship in politics, "we should try at least to get rid of what has clearly become excessive and hyper partisanship.”

He spoke with State Legislatures about how that mnight happen.

State Legislatures: We are accustomed to seeing partisanship in Washington, but many think it is also increasing at the state level. What is your take?

Dan Glickman: You have a couple of factors at work at the state level that you don’t have at the federal level. Legislative sessions are shorter in the states than they are in Congress, which means that even if some members are extremely partisan, they don’t have the luxury of spending hours and hours killing each other.

And because most state legislatures have some sort of constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, the ability to become excessively partisan at the state level is less than it is at the federal level. It forces members to come to agreements, which also tends to lessen the opportunity for excessive partisanship.

Even so, partisanship is there and one of the reasons is the extensive amount of money involved. It’s getting very expensive. Many state legislative races today cost what congressional races used to cost about 25 years ago. And when you have a lot of money coming into politics, particularly outside money, it discourages people in a legislative setting from working together.

One of things we are going to be looking at in the next year is whether or not there is anything happening out there at the state legislative level and with our governors—in what areas do we see people working together?

We have found that some state legislatures no longer allow fund-raising while the legislature is in session. That minimizes the time away from legislating, and that is an idea that we are looking at the federal level as well.

I don’t know if we can come up with any grandiose plan, but we want to see what we can do to at least dampen down the partisanship a bit.

SL: When do you think this era of hyper-partisanship began?

Glickman: My guess is the late 1980s and early 1990s. It used to be before then that trying to reach compromise on an issue was not a sign of weakness or compromise. Today in many circles even talking to somebody across the aisle is viewed as surrender.

But in history we have always had strong partisanship. It is just that it has gotten malignant.

SL: Does the concept of no compromise automatically lead to gridlock?

Glickman: I think so. And of course don’t forget that some of this is also fueled by the 24-hour media, the people on the left and the right who in previous years may never have been called journalists, but have that title today and discourage dialogue and collaboration. You see them on cable and hear them on radio.

Our Bipartisan Policy Center was started by four Senate majority leaders, two Republicans and two Democrats. They said they had to do something to restore the integrity of the American political system and what we call a healthy constructive dialogue where we are not trying to kill each other.

These four leaders all had strong political views and were always trying to defeat the other side in elections, but while they were governing, they always knew that the country came first.

And that’s the problem we are facing today—is the country really coming first in the dialogue that we have today?

SL: Some observers think that the problem is the two-party system itself. Would a strong third party make any difference?

Glickman: Historically, because we don’t have a parliamentary system in America, we have gravitated towards a two-party system. There have been some third party movements over the years. But we just don’t have a culture and history of multiparty movements in America. Does that mean in couldn’t happen? No, it could. After all, Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 election.

If the Democrats and Republicans can’t get together on this deficit, which is the most pressing problem we have right now, will the public turn to some leader who might run on a third party? Maybe. Could that resonate with voters? It’s possible.

SL: What is the purpose of The Democracy Project?

Glickman: We want to go around the country and see what people are doing, what is successful. Some of this is not brain surgery. How do you get people together? It’s a little bit like asking how do you get members of your family together? How do you get people to like each other a little bit more?

SL: But many lawmakers and elected leaders say they feel that they may be punished by their more active supporters if they are seen as talking to or compromising with the other side too much.

Glickman: And that is a problem. It is more on the right today, but it has also been on the left in previous years. And it is troublesome because it has a great impact on the ability of our country to solve great problems.

And if we can’t solve those problems, then we are going to be left behind by the Chinas and Indias—countries that are solving their problems.

I don’t want to replicate their political systems, but they seem to be much more able to deal with the economic problems than we have been. And that is the main reason why we need to get on with the act. If we don’t, we could slip dramatically.

All of which means that the effects of hyper-partisanship and gridlock are no longer academic—this is something that is real and could have a serious negative impact on our future.

Garry Boulard is a freelance writer in Albuquerque and a frequent contributor to State Legislatures.  

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